College Counseling Instructor Steven Mercer On College Costs and Competition

Dr. Steven Mercer makes his living helping kids get into college, and so his professional success depends partly on his ability to spot trends in higher education. He’s sure of this much: the spiraling cost of college simply isn’t sustainable. Too many students are leaving college with too much debt. Something has to change. He and his colleagues continue to grapple with the question of exactly how things will change, both in the short term and over the next few decades.

Mercer runs an LA-based private practice advising high school students and their parents on how to select and gain admission to college. He also teaches UC San Diego Extension courses for those looking to get into the same profession. It is a field, he says, that is mushrooming as more and more anxious parents seek guidance on how to help their kids get into the right school. As costs continue to rise, and competition for admission gets fiercer every year, today’s high school students are “one of the most overmedicated, underslept populations we’ve ever had,” he says.

Why is the work you do important?
The jobs of today and certainly the jobs of tomorrow require, for the most part, a college degree. But it’s become such a huge investment that the choice of college and the process of choosing the right college has just become more and more important. Over the last five years, 10 years, 15 years, the number of people who are entering the field of being an independent educational consultant specifically helping students with the college application process has exploded and it’s not slowing down.

What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?
In terms of what’s going on in college admissions in general, there’s change afoot. The SAT has been redesigned and the new SAT was just administered for the first time about a few weeks ago. There are a lot of kinks and a lot of anxiety and a lot of unknowns. Also, there’s the adoption of the Common Core standards by many, many states as their measure of secondary education. The SAT was revised dramatically to align with Common Core, which is all very confusing and anxiety-provoking for students. The SAT was also partly redesigned to help promote more access from underrepresented students. Whether it will do that or not, we don’t know. The word access is kind of code in the world of college admissions for things we can do to help even out the playing field and create more opportunities.

What’s the next big thing?
One big change is the way people access education. Technology is going to play a larger and larger role. What is likely going to happen is a combination of ‘click and brick,’ more and more online options, or a class with online components that meet partly in person and partly online, any number of different combinations. The way technology is influencing students’ attitudes toward education, and the way they access education, is only going to increase.

How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?
This field used to be just a cottage industry. It’s gotten to the tipping point where people can make a full-time living and practices are growing, multi-person practices, practices with various partnerships providing different service. The goal is always to help a student find the right fit; focusing only on prestige colleges is just not a winning strategy.

Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?
How people are going to save and pay for college is going to be very, very different. It might be a pay-as-you go arrangement, where you don’t pay tuition but later on you pay as a percentage of your income for a certain number of years. I don’t know. It has to change because the cost of college keeps rising and rising and rising, and states and public schools aren’t going to pay more, they’re going to pay less. In the near-term, however, it doesn’t appear that we’ve reached any kind of ceiling. It has not stopped rising. It keeps going up.

Learn more about the College Counseling program and the courses that UC San Diego Extension offers including Understanding College Affordability and Financial AidCollege Counseling Strategies and U.S. College/University Application Process and the International Student.


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